Saturday, March 28, 2020

10 ways to bring death notices to life

The house I grew up in was not very sports-oriented. My mom and dad subscribed to both the Sudbury Star newspaper as well as the bigger, national Globe&Mail and a lot of other reading material, but sports pages were mostly left untouched. To this day I wouldn’t know where to begin interpreting hockey or baseball statistics.

But ask me about obits.

When I was a kid, death notices in the Sudbury Star got read aloud. Some dads talked about whose team was playing in the finals. My dad pointed out that some of his older friends had started going to church again because they were cramming for the finals.

Death is big in my family. Many of our best family trips were to out of town funerals. Some of my favourite relatives are dead but I don’t hold it against them. 

These days, some of my friends are getting to an age at which they’re drawn to that part of the news we used to call “hatched, matched and dispatched” (born, married and died) and they might need some help figuring out not so much who's on first but more like, who's made it home.

So I thought I’d draw on my years of Irish Catholic experience and offer the following “10 tips for getting the most out of the obits.”

I promise they’ll help you understand the arcane, subtle and nuanced language of death notices and more importantly, they’ll save you time and that's something you have less and less of. 

Here’s what you have to know.

Tip One: First, check to see if there's one about you. If not, you can proceed to step two. (That’s a Carter Dad joke I committed to memory before my First Communion.)

Tip Two: In most big-city newspapers, people die in alphabetical order. (Ibid Dad Jokes.)

Tip Three: Not everybody who dies get their name in the paper. Obituaries cost money. This is important. With the rising cost of death notices, it would seem death is increasingly restricted to people with, like, dough. Folks, for instance, who attended fancy schools. But that is not the case. Just because their name’s not in the paper doesn’t mean a person has escaped the inevitable. Like my brother Tom says, “death rate’s same everywhere. One per capita.”  And neither does it mean fancy schools are bad for you.

Tip Four: Believe everything you read in an obit, but know that it’s only part of the story.  Obituaries typically only accentuate the dead person’s achievements and heroic past-times like building wells in Guatemala or leading the Canadian Olympic team to its first Ballroom Dance bronze. They elide over things like the “Frank-liked-to-spend-his-time-reading-and-writing-about-death-notices” type of stuff. Or “Uncle Pete’s breath would knock a buzzard off a manure wagon.” (Okay, Op.Cit. Dad Jokes.)

Tip Five: Death notices are where old thesauruses go to die. Even though death notices are about bucket kicking, the word die rarely makes it to the page. These days, people mostly “ pass.”  Yup. Pass. Call me old fashioned but I generally associate passing with something people want to do.

Tip Six: Then again. I remember visiting Salt Lake City, Utah, where every second citizen is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; a.k.a.,  a Mormon. The obit section of that newspaper (yes, I checked) sparkled with glee because when those people die, they get sent with Amazon-prime efficiency right into Jesus’ arms. The Salt Lake City obits had the same cheery optimism as a high-school yearbook. What do I know? Maybe there is something to that passing thing.

Tip Seven:  I bet the person who came up with “passing” as another word for “dying” was the same guy who called a miserable fifth year of high school a “victory lap.”

Tip Eight: Recently, there was a death notice in the Toronto paper for a man in his ‘50s who died after waging a long battle. I’m pretty sure the obit writer missed a few words.  It didn’t say “a long battle with disease.”  Just “a long battle.”  What I’m hoping is, the guy went down after a long battle with, I don’t know, an army of Huns or something. Which reminds me:  When I was working in the newspaper business,  I used to get perturbed when it seemed proof readers including me took more care with  stories about city politics than with death notices because the obits were the only part of the paper that people ever cut out and handed down through the generations, with some going on to live forever as bookmarks. Typos in death notices can cause inter-generational trauma and are very irrigating.

Tip Nine: I just realized that I've been writing about death notices in newspapers. Few people I know under 45 every open a real paper-y newspaper.  

Tip Ten: I’ve saved the second best part for last.  I’ve long maintained that the obituaries are the most reassuring and positive parts of any newspaper because the stories are happy accounts of lives richly lived by ordinary people who go when they’re supposed to, felled by causes that are mostly quite natural. It’s in  the obituaries where you read about great moms, generous dads, whacked but fun-loving aunts and single uncles who sneak you Southern Comfort---immortal souls who never make the news until this very moment. The death notices are happy places and I should add that these days, they’re composed with with such care and show-offiness that they frequently make for some of the best reading around. Yes, even death notices are better than they used to be.

And the best part of this whole schmozzle?  The best part is, if you’re reading the death notices, you still haven’t “passed.”  If this is what failure feels like, count me in.


To Aries is human

GROWING UP IN LAPLAND: Thats me sitting on my big
brother Tom's knee, at somebody elses birthday party
When I was a little boy, probably under 10, a version of the following conversation happened in the house we grew up in, sometime in late winter or early spring of whatever year it was.

Me: “Complain complain complain! Everybody gets birthday parties but me! Why do I have to wait all the way until September?

My mom: “Peter Frances Carter when your birthday comes around in September we’ll have the biggest party ever.

Knowing Huena (thats my mom’s name) she followed that with an improvised ceremony of adoration that might start with a song, in fact, this exact one:

Im in love with you, Peter, 
Say you love me too, Peter, 
No one else will do, Peter, 
Peter its true.

Huena with Mateus’ dad Michel. 
Looking back, I find it hard to believe that there is not one single syllable of exaggeration in any of the preceding story. My mom piled on the praise as if it were -- heres something not a lot of people know -- as if it were free!

Somewhere between being born in Port Hood Nova Scotia, and moving to Sudbury and giving birth to two kids for every decade of the rosary, Huena learned that compliments and reaffirmations can be doled out in dollops.

And heres something

All that love can be educational, too.

One of the reasons all my brothers and sisters and I knew how much a “peck is was because my mom used to sing:

I love you,
A bushel and a peck, 
A bushel and a peck and a hug around your pretty neck. 
A hug around your neck and a barrel and a heap.
A barrel and a heap and
I'm talkin in my sleep about you.
About you. 

MATEUS: Poster child for the famous
marshmallow experiment!
Huena sang that song so often that when I went to write out the words just now they were right at my fingertips. (I have a good friend named Larry Till who very recently revealed that he, too, knew how much a peck was early on because his grandma used to sing the same song to him. And get this:  Larrys one of the really swell guys on the planet--hes generous, funny, a heck of a writer... I believe Ive stumbled on to something here.)

But back to little boy me.

Me: “But I dont wanna wait until September!!!!

Enter my older brother Tom.

Tom: “Peter. My birthdays in May. Tell you what. You can have it. I dont need it any more. Then you wont have to wait til September.

Really happened.

Tom gave me his early-in-the-year birthday so I wouldnt have to wait for ages. Ill never forget that generous move. Tom was full of them.

So why am I telling you this now?

Because the time has come for me to pay it forward.

April 6 happens to be the birthday of some of my favourite people: My sister Charlene, my pal Willa Oaks, author, raconteur Ernest Hillen and last but most, Mateus Remy Carter Chaignet, my son Michels about-to-be-four year old embodiment of perfection.

But  you may have noticed that the whole world is not in birthday-party mode. All these early-in-the-year birthday celebrants are getting ripped off. (From my observation, everybody I know who was born on April 6 loves parties!)

So, in honour of my brother Tom who died earlier this year, I am handing my September 28 birthday over to the youngest of that bunch of party-loving Aries.

Me: “Mateus Remy Carter Chaignet, when your birthday comes around in September we’ll have the biggest party ever!

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Iris’ sign o’ the times

ROARCATS TEST: Iris doesn’t write between the lines so
dont expect to read between them.
On the phone from Ottawa this morning, my daughter Ria asked the question I’m sure she, her sister Ewa, her brother Michel and maybe her mom but nobody else were itching to hear the answer to:

“How’s Iris taking it?”

The “it” of course is the covid-19 virus situation.

“Iris is,” I replied, “indifferent.”

Iris Cat is clearly not fazed by the news of the day. She has no objections to remaining indoors and not running errands. Iris appears very okay with just keeping her own company.

“Maybe,” I added, “Iris could teach us all a lesson.”

Ria: “We’ve known that for years.”  

At least two.

Because that’s how long it’s been since Iris and her sign started appearing in the living room window of our house. Which means now’s as good a time as any for this third instalment of Iris Cat questions and answers. Starting with, “Did you just say that ridiculous sign has been in your window for two years?”

A: “Sure did. It started same time as my job at The Lawyer’s Daily, which I began in March, 2018. Seems like yesterday.”

Q:  “Really? I bet Iris would never default to a cliché like ‘seems like yesterday.’”

A:  “Only if she were making an excellent pun.”

Q: “Such as?”

A:  “In many ways, the Beatles’ song Eleanor Rigby seems like Yesterday.

Q:  “Have you no shame?”

A: “Depends. Some days, I’d say no but it seems like yes today.”

Q:  “How much of the limited time that you have left on this planet do you intend to busy your brain with those signs?”

A:  “Probably a lot more than Iris does.”

Q:  “How’s the hardware holding up? The sign’s,  I mean.”

A:  “Good question. That equipment  was clearly not built for long-term day-to-day use. The rails that the letters fit into are coming a bit loose so sometimes stuff slips out by mistake.  One might say the sign is, at times, inconsonant.

Q:  “You included the whole hardware story just so you could squeeze out that pun.”

A: “Look who’s talking!

Q: “Why don’t you just glue the rails back into place?”

A:  “I have a feeling that if I start in with the gorilla glue I’m going to regret it and we could wreck the whole shebang. And have to start from scratch.”

Q:  “When you trip across a word like ‘shebang,’ your brain goes into ‘Iris-sign  mode and you start wondering how you can use that in a sentence and then it just naturally finds its way to ‘start from scratch,’ right?”

A:  “You know what you remind me of? You remind me of that old joke about the guy who goes to the psychiatrist and when the psychiatrist administers the Rorschach test,  the patient says all he sees are naked people in various stages of lovemaking. When the doctor says, ‘I think you have some sex hang-ups,’ the patient is like, ‘whaddaya mean me Doc? You’re the one with the dirty pictures.’”

Q: “Back to Iris and covid-19. Would you say Iris is, um,  non-plussed?”

A: “Thanks. I needed that.”

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Read this instead of virus news. It’s short. It’ll make you feel better

For one hour a week, since mid 2017, I have gotten together with a small group at a local drop-in
centre to discuss writing. Some people call it a “workshop” but “playshop” is more accurate.

It’s one of the funnest things I’ve done in my life.

The group calls our get-togethers “Peter’s Writing Group” but identifying me as the leader of this bunch is like naming Wile E. Coyote  leader of the Bugs Bunny Roadrunner gang.

Now that I think about it, our bunch and the Bugs Bunny characters share a trait or two. For one, everybody (not just in that room but everywhere) has had an anvil dropped on their head at some point; but the half dozen or so regulars in the writing playgroup are doing their best to bounce back, like a re-energized Foghorn Leghorn, and we know writing is a vital ingredient in the bouncing-back recipe.

One of my favourites is Mike. He’s somewhere between 30 and 40; he has an arts degree from Sir Wilfrid Laurier and he churns out inventive short stories the way Johnny Cash produced songs--one after the other; each as dark and/or funny as the last. 

One of Mike’s recent pieces was about a 1-800-crisis-care volunteer who--after listening to the anxious tale spun by one of the distressed callers--realizes that the man on the other end of the line is her dad. Like I said, one after the other.

Another woman, Lisa, creates poetry by clipping magazine headlines together and pasting them in amazingly pretty but also gritty verse.

Because I’ve spent so many years in the mag biz in Canada, I was able to determine which actual magazines some were lifted from. (If by any chance any staff of  Zoomer magazine happens to be reading this, they should feel very good about the fact that some of their headlines  have morphed into moving works of poetic art.)

She also produced the rainbow-coloured work in the photo.


Rather than blather on, I’ll wind up by sharing a poem composed by one member of our writing group. Her name’s Delanie. The poem’s called, Hello Heaven.

 Hello Heaven, I’m here to greet you;
These rivers are made of tears;
feelings flowing through heartache and joy.
Please dear,
Let these rivers flow; the mountains of sorrow we pass;
Make the valleys a laugh
Send me a postcard, I’ll mail it to yesterday;
You’re not forgotten but tomorrow you’re too far away.
Let me know today am I okay
This life calling Heaven to come back
Suddenly I feel the wrath of love
The endurement of life
Overwhelming  glow of empowerment
Hello Heaven
Please send me my tears. I’m not alone yet. I still have valleys to till;
Mountains to melt.

Pretty, huh?

If you’re in Toronto any given Wednesday, you’re welcome to join in.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Let's make March 7 International Sisters Day.

My sisters are named — and pay attention, this is important — Mary Leona, Mary Charlene; Norma Ann, Bertholde Marie and Mary Hughiena.

HEART MONIKERS: Me and my sisters;
 namely, Norma Ann, Mary Hughiena Bertholde Marie and Mary Charlene.
Read those names again.

Each contains the requisite get-into-heaven-free-Catholic names “Mary,” “Marie” or “Ann,” but they’re also supercharged with the following zingers:


Here’s why you have to know this.

Have you ever heard the song (written by Shel Silverstein and made famous by Johnny Cash) “A Boy Named Sue?

“My daddy left home when I was three
He didn’t leave much for ma and me.
Just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze
I don’t blame him ‘cuz he run and hid
But the meanest thing he ever did
Was before he left he went and named me Sue.”

My first point is, can you believe I remembered those lyrics off the top of my head? Not only that but I could do the rest of the song if you asked me. Shows you how busy my brain’s not.
NURSE? DOC? NEVER MIND): Huena teaching her
youngest grandson stuff he needs to know 

But that’s neither here nor there.

The important thing is, “A Boy Named Sue” is true science.

Because the kid was named Sue, he had to grow up tough. In a way, his dad did him a favour.

Which brings me to my mom and my sisters.

My mother, Huena Frances, also had five sons. She named us Peter, Alex, Ed, Pat and Tom. Simple, easy-to-remember, low-maintenance names all.

Mom was sure that because we were guys, life would be easier for us.

In light of that, my mom went and named my sisters “Hughiena, Charlene, Norma, Bertholde and Leona.” (Auto-correct was brave enough to only take a shot at one of them: Norma. It suggested “normal.” Ha!.)   

The guy who wrote “A Boy Named Sue” knew that the right name is a powerful ingredient.

When it came to her daughters, Huena aimed for and imbued the bunch of them with independence of mind, strength, courage, compassion and — now that I think about it — whackedness.

And that’s why my sisters are the way they are.